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Chapter 33: the test of talk

We are all unconsciously testing ourselves, all the time, for the information of those around us, and one of the most familiar tests is that of talk. Emerson says that every man reveals himself at every moment; it is he himself, and nobody else, who assigns his position.
Each the herald is who wrote
His rank and quartered his own coat.

After spending an hour in the dark with a stranger, we can classify him pretty surely as to education, antecedents, and the like, unless he has had the wit to hold his tongue. In that case he is inscrutable. In Coleridge's well-known anecdote the stranger at the dinner-table would forever have remained a dignified and commanding figure, had not the excellence of the apple-dumplings called him for a moment forth from his shell to utter the fatal words, [219] “Them's the jockeys for me.” After that the case was hopeless; he had betrayed himself in five words. Of course the speaker might still have been a saint or a hero at heart, but so far as it went the test was conclusive. In Howells's Lady of the Aroostook the young men were appalled at hearing the only young lady on board remark, as an expression of surprise, that she “wanted to know.” It pointed unerringly, they thought, to a rusticity of breeding. In time she developed other qualities, and one or both of them fell in love with her; nevertheless, there was a certain justice in their inference. Holmes, varying an old line, says that “the woman who calculates is lost” ; and it is undoubtedly true that we classify a new-comer, without delay, by his language.

What we do not always recognize is that there are grades in this classification. If a stranger begins by saying, “We was” or “He done it,” we assign him a low place in the school-room of education. He may be a member of Congress, a college professor; no matter; the inference is the same. His morals, his natural intellect, may rank him far above our heads, yet on the side of refined training there is something to be missed. But a great many persons who would be far from any [220] such grammatical misadventures might still use smaller inelegancies which would also classify them in the ears of the fastidious. They might say, for instance, “cute,” or “I don't know as,” or “a great ways.” Nine-tenths of us, according to Mr. Howells, would use some of these phrases, but there is no question that they will grate upon the ears of the other tenth. They do not touch the morals, the intelligence, the essential good manners, of those who utter them; they simply classify such persons as having reached a certain grade of cultivation, and no further. When heard, they cause a certain dismay, such as once came to an ardent young friend of mine, when, having climbed to the top of a stage-coach in order to be near a certain celebrated pulpit orator, not now living, she heard him remark to his little daughter, “Sis, do you set comfortable where you be?”

In his case, and in many such cases, this was probably a mere reversion to the habits of childhood, in familiar talk. It is not likely that he would have said the same in the pulpit. I have heard an eminent professor of rhetoric use language almost as lax when off his guard in his own class-room. This illustrates the fact that our talk is, after all, quite as much a matter of social training as of intellectual [221] instruction. We learn language mainly by ear, and speak good or bad English long before we have looked into a grammar. Hence young children, under refining influences, often avoid the inelegancies which their parents retain; and the improvement goes on from generation to generation. One may meet “in society” some young lady who is really very ignorant, and who has been too ill or too indolent to have more than a minimum of schooling, who yet habitually speaks more unexceptionable English than many a country schoolmaster or schoolmistress of twice her years and four times her real mental training. It is not altogether easy to explain this phenomenon, but there is no question about the fact. The mere practice of social usages is itself a school.

It is to be remembered, too, that the English language itself is a peculiarly whimsical and inconsistent one, where accuracy is largely a matter of good custom, and where mere grammatical consistency may often lead us astray unless we are constantly in touch with usage, and that the best usage. Thus, in writing, “into” is good form, but “onto” looks illiterate, although no reason can be given for the difference. Society finds “he [222] ain't” unpardonable; while “he don't,” though still questionable, is excused. Then there are differences of locality. The educated American says “It is he,” while the educated Englishman still perversely says “It is him,” and tries to defend it. The same Englishman is astounded when he hears Americans say “gotten,” and does not himself discover that it is an archaic phrase, Scriptural, but mainly disused in our Northern States, as in England, until it migrated from Virginia northward after the Civil War. One of the few phrases that still remain as the shibboleth of an Englishman is his saying “different to” instead of “different from.” Another is “directly I went” rather than “directly after I went.” It shows how skin-deep is our alleged Anglicism that we Americans hold our own so inflexibly on these points. Probably we are influencing the English in language more than they are affecting us, and not always beneficially; it is now, for instance, far more common to see “I expect” used for “I think” by a good English writer than by a good American writer. We are acquiring, it is to be hoped, something more of the English habit of clear and well-cut enunciation, but we are holding out fairly well against the deluge of the coarser [223] class of English words, such as “rot” and “beastly.” Nor do we often emulate that high-born young English woman who informed a friend of mine, her hostess, at dinner, that the potatoes were nasty, and on being cautioned that in America we only apply this phrase to something very greasy and offensive, replied that this was precisely what she meant.


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